'Super-spreader' in Jerusalem school said to infect 100+

Amid surge in Israeli virus cases, schools in outbreak areas to be shuttered

Education system to remain largely open; Jerusalem’s Gymnasia Rehavia at center of spike; ministers agree to step up enforcement; Netanyahu to give televised address

The entrance to the Gymnasia Rehavia high school in Jerusalem on May 29, 2020. The school has been closed after numerous students and staff members were diagnosed with Covid-19. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
The entrance to the Gymnasia Rehavia high school in Jerusalem on May 29, 2020. The school has been closed after numerous students and staff members were diagnosed with Covid-19. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Schools in areas with an increased rate of coronavirus infection are expected to shutter temporarily while the rest will remain operational, according to a government decision on Saturday.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu convened a meeting Saturday afternoon with officials and ministers on possible closures in the education system amid a spike in new infections in recent days. He was expected to give a televised address later in the day.

The surge was largely centered on a Jerusalem school, the Gymnasia Rehavia, where a single “super-spreader” was said to have infected over 100 people, according to a Channel 12 report.

The ministers decided to forego a sweeping closure of the education system, as the government did in mid-March. The Health Ministry, which appeared poised to advocate for more comprehensive action, took a softer tone on Saturday, recommending that schools with even one or two infections be shut, Channel 13 reported.

Illustrative: Israeli students and teachers wear protective face masks as they return to school, at Hashalom School in Mevasseret Zion, near Jerusalem, May 17, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The Health Ministry has registered 32 schools nationwide with some measure of infections, according to the report.

Channel 12 reported that 17 schools will be closed as per the new directive.

The ministers also decided on Saturday that enforcement of the directives should be stepped up, with businesses and private individuals facing fines for violating social distancing and other rules.

The Health Ministry said Saturday that it will also embark on an information campaign to encourage Israelis to adhere to the directives, including wearing masks in public areas and at workplaces, washing hands, and maintaining physical distance.

Israel has seen a jump in new virus cases over the past few days after the morbidity rate dropped steadily in recent weeks, and on Friday recorded over 100 infections in a 24-hour period — the first since May 2.

At the center of the outbreak is the Gymnasia Rehavia high school in Jerusalem where 103 of the new cases in Israel over the past two days were confirmed. All the students and staff are in the process of being tested.

On Saturday, the Paula Ben Gurion elementary school in Jerusalem announced that it would not open until Tuesday at the earliest due to concerns that a large number of students had siblings who attend the Gymnasia Rehavia high school.

The Kan public broadcaster reported that the staff and parents’ committee indicated that a decision on reopening would not be made until testing was completed of all Gymnasia Rehavia students and staff.

The Jerusalem Municipality said later Saturday that other schools in the city would be open.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu holds a press conference at the Prime Minister’s office in Jerusalem to address the coronavirus crisis, March 16, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Israel on Saturday reopened four drive-through testing stations across the country. The first one to reopen was at Jerusalem’s Teddy Stadium parking lot, which prioritized testing the remainder of the Gymnasia Rehavia school. The testing stations at Tel Aviv’s Yarkon Park and in Beersheba and Haifa also later restarted operations.

Health officials are concerned that fewer people are getting tested. Though at the height of the pandemic around 13,000-14,000 people were being tested every day, those numbers have dropped considerably in recent weeks as fewer people experience symptoms.

According to figures put out by the Health Ministry Saturday morning, a further 121 people were diagnosed with the coronavirus overnight, continuing an upward trend since Thursday.

There were 39 people in serious condition, of whom 35 were on ventilators. Meanwhile, 39 were in moderate condition with the rest seeing only mild symptoms.

Magen David Adom medical workers at a drive-through site to collect samples for coronavirus testing in Jerusalem on May 30, 2020 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The announcement came after 115 new cases were discovered on Friday and the ministry reported 79 new infections Thursday, following weeks in which new diagnoses had hovered at around 20 or less a day. Friday’s announcement marked the first time that the 100 mark has been breached since May 2. That lull allowed Israel to relax most lockdown restrictions.

At a Friday press conference in Tel Aviv, health officials said the sharp rise was mainly at schools, most of which were allowed to reopen earlier this month.

Sigal Sadetsky, head of public health services in the Health Ministry, said 31 schools across the country had been identified as “centers” of the new cases.

“It’s clear to us unfortunately that the conditions at schools… don’t allow for non-infection of coronavirus,” she said.

A picture shows the entrance to the Gymnasia Rehavia high school in Jerusalem on May 29, 2020 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Despite the uptick in cases, the government said Thursday that higher education institutions and youth groups would be allowed to operate from Sunday, under Health Ministry restrictions.

Meanwhile, outgoing Health Ministry director-general Moshe Bar Siman-Tov attributed the growing number of cases to an “atmosphere of euphoria and complacency” among Israelis who were “not observing the rules,” such as wearing masks, keeping distance from one another and maintaining hygiene.

Bar Siman-Tov warned the path was “short” to having hundreds of new cases a day and from there to thousands of new infections, but said a potential second wave of the virus “depends solely on our behavior.” He called on Israelis to refrain from visiting their grandparents, saying it was better to speak with them by videoconferencing apps such as Zoom.

From left to right: Health Ministry deputy director-general Itamar Grotto, director-general Moshe Bar Siman-Tov and head of public health services Sigal Sadetsky at a press conference in Tel Aviv on May 29, 2020. (Health Ministry)

The fresh warnings came as Friday and Saturday saw tens of thousands of people flock to nature and beaches amid pleasant weather and a long weekend due to the Shavuot holiday, as Israelis increasingly emerged from weeks of lockdown. TV reports also showed large crowds of Israelis enjoying the Shavuot festival with parties at nightclubs late Thursday.

With recent weeks seeing a sharp drop-off in the number of new virus cases, the country has lifted restrictions on movement, businesses and educational institutions.

Restaurants, pubs, hotels, pools and other establishments began opening up and hosting patrons Wednesday after authorities gave the go-ahead to ease pandemic restrictions and allow some of the last businesses remaining shut to reopen.

Event halls for weddings and other mass gatherings are set to reopen on June 14.

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